Qatar is well known for its towering skyscrapers, luxury hotels and impressive feats of engineering that have enabled the cosmopolitan city of Doha to spring up in the middle of the desert. Common preconceptions lead many visitors to believe that a large proportion of their time in Qatar is likely to be spent inside air-conditioned buildings to escape the powerful heat of the sun, so it might surprise you to discover that there is actually a plethora of exciting outdoor adventures to take part in, unique landscapes to explore and extraordinary experiences to pursue outside of the constrains of the urban environment.

A 4WD through the dunes © Qatar Tourism Authority
A 4WD through the dunes © Qatar Tourism Authority

While 92% of the Qatari population reside within the capital, it’s easy to see that their hearts lie elsewhere. During evenings, weekends and holidays, expats and locals alike give in to the magnetic draw of the waters and deserts of the country, flocking out of the city. They are at their happiest when amongst ancient landscapes, partaking in the centuries-old traditions that give Qatar its fascinating culture and memorable identity.

Adrenaline-pumping desert adventures

The untouched, undulating dunes and diverse landscapes of Qatar’s desert are a spectacle to behold. This tranquil and barren environment has a unique kind of beauty to it, particularly at sunrise and sunset, when the famous Arabian sun reflects off the pale sand, creating scenes which have inspired many poets and artists over the years. Juxtapose this beautiful space and serenity with the addition of an adrenaline-pumping sport, and you have a recipe for a whole lot of fun.

Hire a 4WD with an experienced driver for the day to explore the desert to the south west of the city. They will take you on a breath taking white-knuckle ride known as dune bashing, driving up and down steep inclines at pace, sand whipping at the windows of the vehicle. You’ll stop at the inland sea called Khor Al Adaid, a Unesco recognised natural reserve, which, with its towering golden sand dunes bordering pure white beaches and sparkling clear water, is a great vantage point for a photo. Here, you can also peer over the border at Saudi Arabia.

Longer tours often combine a morning and evening of dune bashing, with an afternoon experiencing a traditional Bedouin camp, sand skiing or sand boarding and camel riding, too. Qatar International Tours has an impressive range of desert safaris available.

If you would prefer a bit of a different experience, then Doha Bus has a number of alternative options for your hair-raising desert adventure. Go dune bashing on board a monster bus or don helmets and become a passenger on board a dune buggy, with a guided tour complete with headsets, followed by an adrenaline-fuelled dune bashing experience just inches from the sand.

A traditional dhow in Doha, Qatar © Artie Photography (Artie Ng) / Getty Images
A traditional dhow in Doha, Qatar © Artie Photography (Artie Ng) / Getty Images

Water sports in unique settings

There’s no better way to view Doha’s stunning skyline than from the water, and for an authentic experience, this just has to be done on board a traditional dhow. These hand-made wooden boats are an important part of Qatari heritage, traditionally used for fishing and pearl diving, and look equally majestic gliding over the sparkling sea during the day as they do when they are lit up with colourful neon lights at night.

Head to the Corniche, where a number of dhows are moored at regular intervals, offering short rides out onto the Gulf, lasting 45 minutes to an hour. Alternatively, book in advance with Arabian Adventures for a half-day experience, including refreshments, a BBQ and a stop at Safliya Island.

For a more hands-on water sports experience, you can try your hand at stand-up paddle boarding around the impressive horseshoe-shaped, yacht-filled marina at Qatar’s manmade island, The Pearl with Club Blue Pearl, or head north of the city to the mangroves of Al Thakira, to kayak around the intricate waterways which attract an array of birdlife including herons and flamingos with Aquasports Qatar.

Camel racing at Al Shahaniya Racetrack © Omar Chatriwala / Getty Images
Camel racing at Al Shahaniya Racetrack © Omar Chatriwala / Getty Images

Animal encounters

Animals are a huge part of the country’s culture, and this passion is visible in the Qataris' devotion to a wide range of animal-based sports; in particular, horse racing, camel racing and falcon hunting. Visitors have the opportunity to both witness and even take part in some of these sports if they desire.

Qatar Foundations’ Equestrian Centre, Al Shaqab is a great place to start. The sprawling stables and training site is focused on improving the quality of Arabian show horses and preserving the breed by continuing the lineage of Qatar’s finest. They offer tours of their facilities, enabling you to meet some of the stunning horses that are housed there and witness them in action as they train with world class riders and handlers.

A little further outside the city, at Al Shahaniya Racetrack, you can drive alongside camels as they race with mini robots attached to their humps, or head to the resting stables to see the camels a little closer and for some great photo opportunities.

For immersive horse show and camel riding experiences, head to Doha Bus where they have a range of interactive tours that allow you to get up close and personal with these majestic creatures. 

Al Zubara Fort © aksphoto / Getty Images
Al Zubara Fort © aksphoto / Getty Images

Exploring Qatari culture and tradition

A little more than 50 years ago, Qatar looked very different to how it looks today. The country’s heritage is founded on nomadic Bedouin tribes who lived off the land, caught fish from the sea and dived for pearls. For a taster of what life was like before the bright lights of the city rose from the desert, a variety of tour operators, such as Falcon Tours offer a magical night in the desert on a traditional Bedouin-style camp beneath the stars.

For a day visit, it’s worth making the trip over to the untouched western edge of the country, where the unusual limestone rock formations of Ras Abrouk that have been slowly sculpted by the prevailing wind jut out of the ground at interesting angles. Climbing atop this topography yields an impressive view of the Qatar Peninsular; the very same vantage point that the country’s forebears will have used to scan the land for the perfect spot to pitch their tents decades before. In the same location today, you can find Richard Serra’s East-West/West-East sculpture that comments on isolation and the passing of time.

If you are willing to travel outside of Doha, often across rugged terrain and desert, there are a wealth of historical sites of interest to explore besides: the Al Zubara Fort, a Unesco World Heritage site, one of the best preserved and most extensive examples of an 18th-19th century settlement in the region; the Barzan Towers, built in the village of Umm Salal Mohammed between 1910 and 1916; Al Wajba Fort, the site of a famous battle, built in the late 18th century; and the Al Jassasiya rock carvings (all 874 of them!) which date all the way back to Neolithic times.

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